Gunpowder, treason & plot

Bhavya Dore | Updated on March 10, 2018

The case files: Crime literature critic Tobias Gohlis heads a 21-member panel that picks a list of the 10 best German crime novels every month. Photo: Bhavya Dore

A country with nearly 700 crime writers is finally starting to enjoy its moment under the sun

Tobias Gohlis joined the tips of his fingers, forming the shape of a pyramid. “There is a bigger base and a bigger middle,” he said, “and it has been growing.” Gohlis, 65, is a columnist and crime literature critic, and was describing via geometry the breadth and expanse of crime fiction in Germany. “It is like the haiku in Japan,” he said, chuckling, “Everyone thinks they can do it.”

Sheer numbers would indicate that. Gohlis, a genial, white-haired man, heads a 21-member panel that picks a list of the 10 best crime novels every month. Crime writer and journalist Reinhard Jahn’s archive of major living crime writers has about 390, and 700-plus writers are part of the German Crime Writers’ Association: ‘Syndikat’, a crafty wordplay on crime syndicates.

Part of the boom can be traced to the specialised sub-branch of crime writing — the regional krimi — where novels are set in specific villages and towns.

In 2012 alone, 7.6 million regional krimis were sold, prompting critics to say not a single neighbourhood in the country had been left out of a series. Emons Publishing for instance, publishes 150-plus such novels a year.

German crime fiction has shown its flexibility and bench strength through other forms too: the historical crime genre, the police procedural, the crime novel that blends in humour, and the garden variety psychological thriller. “One of the things about the krimi boom is that the quality has improved,” said Thomas Woertche, 61, critic, scholar and director of an international crime fiction programme for Suhrkamp publishing house. “Overkill is also a problem, but the average book is now better.” Woertche gets about 100 German crime novels to review every month.

“Nearly 30-40 per cent of the fiction market is crime fiction,” said Kirsten Reimers, 48, a critic and crime prize juror. “As a publisher, if you want to earn money, you publish crime fiction.” So if Germany is enjoying a long spell of its krimi boom, how come it hasn’t reached English language readers? Experts speculate on the various reasons: Anglophone writers are in abundance and have a longer tradition of crime writing, German landscapes aren’t exotic enough, translations are expensive.

“The English market is very difficult for German crime fiction, but we think it’s changing,” said Andreas Hoh and Sabine Thomas, organisers of the Munich International Festival of Crime Fiction. He is hopeful of more interest with the success of Nele Neuhaus and others. Neuhaus, a phenomenon in Germany, successfully transfixed American audiences with her first US translation — Snow White Must Die. Others like Sebastian Fitzek, Jan Costin Wagner and Charlotte Link have all been translated into English in the past few years.

So how come publishers have not tried to mine German writing the way they have the Scandinavian fiction scene? “We had no Stieg Larsson,” said Gohlis. “Though he is not an excellent writer, he was something unique. And it came at a time when people were waiting for a tough, young, bisexual woman like Lisbeth Salander.”

German crime fiction is yet to have its Larsson moment, but incrementally, this is changing. In May itself, Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin and Melanie Raabe’s The Trap came out in the UK. Woertche is putting together an anthology of crime stories in English for Akashic Books, and The Nameless Day, the latest novel by multiple-prize winner Friedrich Ani, is being translated. Since 2011, prize winners and bestselling authors like Bernhard Jaumann and Andreas Pittler have also been translated into English. But is there more scope?

“Absolutely,” said Katherina Hall, Swansea University professor and author of Crime Fiction in German, a new English volume. “In market terms, German-language crime fiction is an under-exploited resource. British publishers are increasingly aware of this and are looking for quality German, Austrian and Swiss crime novels to translate.”

Books such as hers and Contemporary German Crime Fiction: A Companion also show that “the international reception of German crime fiction in academia is increasing”, said Nele Hoffmann, a Goettingen University professor and crime prize juror.

The genre itself has become expansive enough to contain various sub-types, as also the division between quality crime writing and the more pulpy variety. Although Germany might not have the stark, contemplative landscapes of Nordic settings, there is a host of other possibilities. “German cities are fascinating places with interesting social problems,” said Woertche. “There are some interesting writers writing good prose. Books that are set in specific German situations would do well, I think, especially if they were not just run-of-the-mill serial-killer novels.”

For instance: Ani writes about missing people, Simon Urban’s Plan D sets up a murder in a world where the Berlin Wall has not fallen, Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies gives us a literary thriller about a writer and Jakob Arjouni’s Turkish-origin detective shows us a second-generation refugee with a sense of humour.

Reimers said authors like Frank Goehre, or Simone Buchholz, whose novels explore different strands of Hamburg life, also merit translating. “For me, good crime fiction doesn’t just deal with the body in the library but if the book can also describe social reality with authentic characters,” she said.

Some of the impulses that propel readers towards crime fiction are universal: a taste for suspense, curiosity about the darker side of human nature and the murkiness of bustling cities.

“Literature gives order and crime writers take on complex social conflicts, fear and other problems,” said Gohlis. “Of course, it is also enjoyable to read about lives and relationships in other countries. Ultimately, crime novels are about suspicious situations, and we are all suspicious people.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on September 02, 2016

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